Labor has been caught flat-footed by accusations it made payments to people smugglers while in government, taking the sting out of its own attack on the Coalition.
The allegations, raised by Fairfax Media, suggest Australian intelligence officials made payments to people smugglers from as early as 2010 to obtain information or dissuade them from launching boats.
Labor frontbenchers refused to unequivocally answer questions over whether it paid people smugglers, citing a requirement for secrecy on operational matters.
During a press conference in Canberra on Tuesday, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten continued to deploy the national security defence.
“When it comes to national security matters … we don’t talk about that,” he said. “No serious leader does.”
In Question Time yesterday, the government responded the same way to repeated questions from Labor about whether Australian officials had paid a crew of people smugglers to turn back to Indonesia earlier this month.
Each response citing national security concerns met with loud guffaws from the Opposition.
But there was one important distinction between the accusations against Labor and claims the government spent taxpayers’ money to pay a crew of people smugglers $5000 each to return to Indonesia, Mr Shorten said.
“Labor did not pay people smugglers to turn boats around,” he said.
“We made mistakes in this area and we have learned the difficult lessons of the past … (but) we have every right to ask questions about this and to expect answers.”
Mr Shorten later refused to say whether Labor in government had paid any “on-land” money to people smugglers in Indonesia.
“I’m not using the land-sea distinction,” he told reporters in Canberra.
“I am saying Labor has never paid people smugglers to turn back boats as it appears the government has done.”
Labor does not have a boat turn-back policy and did not have one during its time in government.
Mr Shorten also reaffirmed his party’s commitment to the offshore processing of asylum seekers and said Labor would be re-evaluating its asylum seeker policies in the coming months.
Opposition spokespeople, including Shadow Immigration Minister Richard Marles, declined to give a direct answer to the allegations during a series of interviews on Tuesday.
Labor’s initial attack began after the government backed away from denials ministers that it payed people smugglers to turn around their boat, which was destined for New Zealand.
The boat then crashed after hitting a reef off the Indonesian coast.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Attorney-General George Brandis bluntly denied any payments were made when asked by reporters.
Mr Dutton’s one-word response – “No” – could not be misinterpreted.
In parliament however, where MPs can be punished for providing misleading information, the government has refused to repeat those denials.